“my mind becomes one with all this” (Liu Tsung-Yuan)


I’ve been working on the final edits of an essay which will appear in a forthcoming anthology, Sharp Notions: Essays on the Stitching Life, due in fall from Arsenal Pulp. My contribution is about John’s bilateral hip replacement surgery in the fall of 2020 and the unexpected injury he suffered during that surgery. It’s about caring for him during a difficult period and how I worked on two quilts to keep my mind quiet. I was afraid. There were other medical issues at the time and our house in the woods felt very far from the services we needed. Because of COVID and because we were advised to consider John immunocompromised, we were not seeing other people at that time. I sewed and John healed and then I wrote about how the two processes were intimately connected, the threads overlapping and entwined. (In an older time, his incisions would have been sewn up after the surgery but now most surgeons use staples!)

Reading the essay as I worked on the rough spots, I realized it was about marriage as much as anything else. As well as anything else. When John was in UBC hospital, recovering from the surgery, we celebrated our 41st wedding anniversary. I bought pastries at a little bakery near where I was staying and took them to his room with a copy of Written in Exile: The Poetry of Liu Tsung-Yuan, translated by Red Pine (the pen-name of Bill Porter). We ate the pastries and read poems to each other, looking out towards the North Shore mountains.

Sewing, poetry, pastries…these have been constants of our lives together, it seems. We met at a poetry reading in 1979, we’ve worked as poets (though my writing trail veered off that course about 30 years ago), I began making quilts 35 years ago and the results are on every bed in our house, and we’ve always loved good pastries. When we stayed in Paris in 2009, in a tiny garret flat in the Marais, we went daily to a patisserie nearby and bought delicious treats to bring back to have with coffee. There were something like 94 stairs to our flat so walking up and down three or four times a day wore off the calories. We didn’t celebrate a wedding anniversary on that trip but a year or two later we were in Vienna on October 20th and we found a wonderful restaurant where we had a memorable meal. We chose the restaurant because it was a little low building and because there was a tidy stack of firewood by the door so we knew there would be a fireplace within. There was, and the food was wonderful. Tyrolean food, the owner told us, and he kept bringing little tastes of this and that, including duck and apple mousse in a tiny shell of choux pastry to taste while we were waiting for our soup and a schnapps flavoured with larch (for me) and pine (for John) to have with dessert.

Today isn’t our wedding anniversary but it’s the 44th anniversary of our meeting, which has always felt more important than the date we actually formalized our relationship. On the night we met, I was wearing a deep red dress I wish I still had. I was wearing mulberry tights. It doesn’t seem like 44 years ago. Everything feels like it was, oh, a month or so ago. A month or so ago I was waiting for our first baby to be born. A month or so ago I was sewing curtains for rooms for our children, red and blue cotton with white elephants marching from left to right. I was planting tomato seeds in little pots to arrange by the woodstove for warmth while the seeds germinated. I was writing my first essay. John was finishing a book of poems. We were listening to Dire Straits for the first time. We were walking down the driveway with one child, then two, then three, with one dog after another, until there were none. We were standing by the front door as grandchildren arrived and left. I was sitting in the rocking chair by the fire finishing a quilt. Starting another. Van Morrison was singing, I’m gonna walk down the street until I see my shining light. Our parents were getting older and older and then they were gone. Friends too. And how did this happen? We got older too.

A photograph is a story. It’s the whole story. In the one I’ve used here, we are young, there’s a baby on its way, we have slept on the land we live on now, we are learning where the best views of the mountain are, where the deer bed down for the night, where we want our house to be. We have made the first ring of stones for fire. We are drinking the water from the lake we love. Almost certainly the first dog of our shared lives was curled up at our feet.

Last night we drove out to the Backeddy Pub in Egmont for supper. The chef made elk ragu over soft potato gnocchi. We sat by the window and looked across the inlet to two frail lights on the other side. This is a life, two people at a table, the tide high, the waiter pouring a little more wine before the drive home on a narrow twisting road. I’m going to go slow, said John, because the line on the middle of the road has faded completely. A little snow fell.

Sandbars free of overnight clouds
village walls lit by the morning sun
a pristine pond encircled by trees
last night’s rain scattered by the wind
happy having nothing to do
my mind becomes one with all this
–Liu Tsung-Yuan, translated by Red Pine

The geometry of remembering

I’ve just finished reading Alex  Danchev’s recent biography of Cezanne. It’s a fascinating book, if occasionally irritating. (The author uses “ballsy” as an adjective one too many times…) But the reader is taken into the complex world of Cezanne and his contemporaries and I appreciated the detailed information about the painter’s process and the changing values of his palette.

I’ve always thought that memory was an abiding obsession in Cezanne’s work and this biography bears that out. So often the landscape in a Cezanne painting —  the fields and hills below Mont-Sainte-Victoire near Aix-en-Provence for instance – is one where he roamed as a boy, often in the company of Émile Zola, plunging into rivers and climbing the fragrant pine trees of the region, reciting verses to one another. The landscape paintings are not cool representations. In a letter to his young friend Louis Aurenche, written late in life, he said, “For if the keen sensation of nature – and I certainly have that – is the necessary basis for all artistic conception, on which rests the grandeur and beauty of future work, knowledge of the means of expressing our emotion is no less essential, and is acquired only through very long experience.”

In the fall of 2010, I spent a morning in the Leopold Museum in Vienna, looking at the work of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele. Klimt’s canvases shimmering with gold leaf, Schiele’s figures: all so beautiful – and yet I felt left out. Or maybe what I mean is that I couldn’t find a way in. Then I went in to a gallery hung with pictures on loan from the Fondation Beyeler in Basel and one of them was this, Cezanne’s “La route tournante en haut du chemin des Lauves 1904-1906”.


It’s a length of road just above the studio Cezanne had built for himself in 1902 on a south-facing hillside above Aix. Everything is dense with possibility – the dark trees, the road itself, that high quilted sky, the angular blocks of the buildings. For me, it’s the geometry of remembering: how a road rises, then turns, the sky clear and blue, fields beckoning, young men heading out, their heads full of poetry and girls. And it’s mysterious too, the way the chemin des Lauves disappears behind the trees. In a letter to his son Paul, Cezanne said, remembering his time with his friend Pissarro, “How far away it all is, and yet how close.”

That morning in the Leopold Museum, I felt a sense of recognition. I understood the language of this small landscape by Paul Cezanne, its geometrical forms and planes in service to something recalled and summoned to the moment. I remember that I sat on a bench and fished a tissue out of my pocket to wipe the tears from my eyes.